Cars aren’t just in short supply; they are getting older all the time. IHS Markit, which keeps track of such things, reported that the average age of a currently in-service car is 12.1 years.
Almost a teenager!
This trend has been ongoing for some time and has nothing to do with the COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent lockdowns.
People have been hanging onto their cars for longer for a long time, for some time.
It is merely getting longer.
If you’re over 40, you can probably remember when a twelve-year-old car wasn’t just an old car. It was a worn-out car. Crow’s feet, in the form of spider-webbing paint; arteriosclerosis, in hard-starting and stalling, the oil and alternator lights flickering. Rust like decaying joints.
When that began to happen, it was usually time to get a new car.
But that was 30 years ago, and the times they are a-changing. Have changed.
People hold onto their old cars for longer or buy an old car and drive it rather than buy into a new car. The reason why is simple. They are doing it because they can.
This didn’t use to be the case.
And (Schadenfreude moment), we can thank the government for that.
One of the unanticipated consequences of Uncle’s mandates (especially with vehicle exhaust emissions of which practically nil have been permissible since the mid-’90s) is that engines made since the mid-’90s have been designed to such acceptable tolerances and are generally of such high quality to be as efficient, tight and thus, “clean” as possible, that they last almost forever.
And the rest of the car usually looks good for that long, too, or close to it.
A 70,000-mile engine runs like a new engine. It is common for gas engines, not diesel engines, to rack up more than 200,000 miles before they need a repair expensive enough to make it not worth repairing it.
Relative to the buy-in cost of a new car and certainly electric cars.
This sets up an interesting dilemma for the government and automakers. Both want very much to get people into electric cars for reasons that are different but also complementary.
The government wants to tether the driving public’s mobility to the electric umbilicus, which government already controls as the source of the high-voltage electricity electric cars sup on is controlled by what is styled “public” utilities. Automakers are getting in line and going all in on electric vehicles.
But suppose not enough people buy what they’re trying to sell. In that case, it could mean the end of many automakers as we know them, given how much money some of them have put toward the making of electric vehicles. EVs have so far been a hard sell, and unless automakers massively discount them or get the government to buy them by using taxpayer money.
There is only so much that consumers and taxpayers will tolerate.
Typically and even historically, attrition would solve this problem. New cars became worn-out cars pretty rapidly. One didn’t see that many old cars in regular service because they were rarely capable of it. They were teenagers’ first cars—the hand-me-down beater cars they drove to school and their part-time jobs after school at a fast-food place—not cars driven to work every day by their parents, who needed to commute to work.
But the cars made over the past 20 years or so can be driven until their teenagers have teenagers of their own, by which time the old car will finally have become a worn-out car.
That is a long time to wait for those pushing electric cars and those needing to sell electric cars right now.
Or at least, very soon.
2030 is the date by which EVs are supposed to be the only cars on the road or at least most of the cars in the showroom. That’s not too far down the road. A substantial percentage of the cars currently on the road, which are not electric cars, are likely to still be on the road in just over eight years from now.
And for many years after that.
How much longer can the electric car pushers afford to wait? And what will they do about all of those old and getting older but not getting worn-out not-electric cars when they can’t afford for buyers to wait any longer?
There will likely be a push to get those old but not-tired cars off the road.
For years, Japan has been doing it via pedantic “safety” and “emissions” inspections called Shaken, which regulate older cars off the road by denying them registration renewal. Usually, the reasons are petty but often hugely expensive to fix. An excuse can be found to fault them for not being quite new-car perfect in some way. Many times, several excuses are often found.
This is how the Japanese government supports the Japanese car industry.
It could happen here. What will American motorists likely do about it?
We’ll find out soon enough.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.